Hurricanes RB joins crowded Bengals backfield

After targeting predicted areas of need in the first three rounds, the Cincinnati Bengals kicked off Day 3 of the NFL Draft with a surprise pick of running back Mark Walton.

The University of Miami product joins Joe Mixon and Giovani Bernard in a talented backfield.

“Coming into the draft we probably weren’t that specific on this pick,” offensive coordinator Bill Lazor said. “But as we approached today and we looked at the best players best on our board, we felt like he popped out at us.”

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Walton, who at 5-foot-9, 205 pounds is Bernard clone in stature, first caught the eye of Lazor last spring.

Lazor was the Bengals quarterbacks coach at the time and was at Miami to talk to Hurricanes quarterback Brad Kaaya leading up to the 2017 draft.

“As we sat and watched the tape, he couldn’t say enough things about No. 1 (Walton),” Lazor said. “I got to see him on film and happened to be out on the field that day watching the end of their spring practice before the quarterbacks worked out. When his name came back up, I was able to say, ‘Oh, yeah. I remember that guy from last year. He might have been the best player on their team.”

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The Miami coaches agreed, naming Walton the team MVP after a sophomore season in which he rushed for 1,117 yards and 14 touchdowns while catching 27 passes for 240 yards and a score.

Walton was on pace to top those numbers last year until he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in his fourth game.

“If you go back to 2016 and even 2017 before he got hurt, he’s an elusive guy when he gets in space and is a real threat,” Bengals running backs coach Kyle Caskey said. “He can still do all of the other normal running plays you want, but he falls into a Giovani Bernard type of category, if you want to look at it that way. He’s very elusive in space and has enough speed to make breakaway runs happen.

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“He’s a tough kid,” Caskey continued. “He plays a lot bigger than what he weighs in at. He will come in immediately and add to the current room we have.”

The Bengals also are expecting Walton to add value to special teams, as he did at Miami as a member of both the kickoff and punt coverage teams.

“There aren’t a lot of really, really good running backs in college football that you can watch cover a kickoff and cover a punt and make tackles to show their toughness, their versatility, change of direction in space,” Lazor said. “The guy makes a ton of plays with the ball in his hand. We’re excited to have him.”

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Walton comes to Cincinnati with an interesting back story. His father was murdered by a girlfriend when Walton was 7, and his mom passed away last year after complications from a stroke.

The desire to support his siblings and his daughter, who was born two weeks before his mom passed away in February 2017, led Walton to declare early for the NFL Draft.

“The coaches (at Miami) spoke very highly of him — his character as a person and how he fit on their football team, along with what he meant to their team, day-in and day-out,” Bengals head coach Marvin Lewis said. “We feel blessed, as he was our target in this round.”

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Walton, along with first-round center Billy Price from Ohio State, was one of just two offensive players the Bengals selected through their first eight picks.

Here’s a look at the rest of the players the team added Saturday:

Fifth round, 151st overall – Davontae Harris, cornerback, Illinois State

Harris (5-11, 205) was a three-year starter at ISU, where he recorded four interceptions and 39 passes defended. He also was one of the team’s leading tacklers.

A former sprinter in high school in Kansas, he placed third in the state in the 100-meter dash and sixth in the 200.

Fifth round, 158th overall – Andrew Brown, defensive tackle, Virginia

The 2013 Gatorade National Player of the Year had offers from colleges across the country but elected to stay close to home and go to Virginia. His career got off to a slow start due to injuries, but he started the last two seasons.

Brown (6-3, 296) was penalized numerous times for late hits and ejected from two games, one for throwing a punch and one for targeting.

Fifth round, 170th overall – Darius Phillips, cornerback, Western Michigan

An electrifying player with the ball in his hands, Phillips set an FBS record with 12 career return touchdowns (five kickoff, five interception, one punt, one fumble).

He also scored two touchdowns on offense as a wide receiver. Brown (5-9, 193) was a three-year starter for the Broncos, recording 12 interceptions, 47 passes defended and two sacks.

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